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The eight-month old battle between the Lebanese state and anti-corruption activists has taken many forms: from street protests and occupying government buildings–met with tear gas and water cannons– to music videos, egging official motorcades, even rolling out a medieval catapult to hurl trash bags at the prime minister’s office. But now it has become a war of drones.

Responding to a Ministry of Tourism drone video that highlights Lebanon’s natural beauty, activists with the #YouStink movement released a more realistic drone video revealing the state of garbage mountains across the country, an environmental and public health disaster–and massive political failure– the Lebanese state would rather hide.

You can read more about the crisis, and the very creative forms of activism it has sparked, in my latest piece for The Guardian, here.

The Ministry of Tourism has threatened to sue the activists for using their logo and “harming Lebanon’s image”.

What do you think?

Here is the ministry video:

 

Here is the YouStink video:

 

And here’s a comparative video made by the skilled editors at The Guardian to go with my piece:

 

On Saturday at 4PM (tomorrow) YouStink have announced a major protest march from Sassine Square to Riad Al Solh, near Parliament. In their latest press release, delivered on national television using surgical masks, activists are upping the ante by handing the state a “final ultimatum:” “We will not yield to your extortion and remain silent on your failure… You have until Saturday to find a solution for this disaster.”

It is not clear how or if the ministry and activists will come through on their latest threats. Over 250 protesters have been jailed or detained since protests began but lawyers representing the activists say all have been released, and many shown in videos of celebrations held outside police stations, also posted on Facebook.

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UPDATE:

Hours ahead of tomorrow’s protest, the government has just made an emergency announcement:

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Has the pressure of activism and the worldwide circulation of their garbage drone videos (now nearing one million views) motivated the government to action? Is this a tactic to reduce the crowds at tomorrow’s protest? Activists have already warned that the dumps mentioned above are substandard or overcapacity. Will this latest government decision have any impact on the protestors’ demands and the environmental disaster?

UPDATE 2 (13/3/16)

After a long day of demonstrations filling the streets downtown, activists have called on citizens to boycott work and school beginning on Monday until the sanitation crisis is resolved. As of early Sunday, some were camped out in front of police lines facing the prime minister’s office. Follow the Beirut Report Facebook page for the latest updates, images and videos from the protests.

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As 2015 comes to a close, it’s important to look back at the ways the Lebanese press behaved unexpectedly this year, confronting state power like never before, and at times, almost giving an equal voice to those who challenge it. I look at these developments in detail and ask if this trend will continue in my column last month for Bold Magazine. Photo: Activists hold an impromptu press conference in downtown Beirut on Sept. 16, 2015.

 

A New Era For Lebanese Journalism?

// Bold Magazine, November 2015

 

The myth of press freedom in Lebanon is often hailed by Middle East analysts, but ask locals and many will answer with a cynical shrug, pointing out that much of the media is owned by politicians. Of course this is largely accurate as dozens of publications, websites and television stations are indeed managed by self-appointed sectarian chieftains, militias-turned political parties or the powerful businessmen that bankroll them, often literally with their own banks.  

For years I have written and lectured on the topic of Lebanese journalism or the lack thereof, chronicling the nauseating pandering to politicians and business that dominates our airwaves. In many cases, what is broadcast is utter propaganda– music and sound effects included. And in the newspapers it is often sourceless material with few quotations, expert sources or analysts interviewed. Some Lebanese papers even publish what can only be described as political horoscope sections, where all names are anonymous–identified only as a “high-ranking official” or “foreign envoy”–allowing readers to fill in the blanks with whatever their imaginations can conjure.

But even more dangerous than the outright lies sold to the public, is the subtle manipulation of storytelling and abdication of reporting responsibilities in favor of the practice of near-constant political stenography. This means our media largely acts as a virtual audio and sound recorders simply attending all of the pseudo events (i.e. press conferences and speeches) created by politicians and serving their purpose entirely by reporting strictly what has been said without question. As a result, newscasts and newspaper pages are filled with the voices of the powerful, leaving little room for exploring citizen concerns, or any time for research to hold elite chiefs and warlords accountable for the bombastic, contradictory and patronizing things they are usually saying.

Evidence of this utter Lebanese press failure can be found in the litany of dysfunctional, basic state services, such as the daily shortages of water and electricity which are virtually never investigated in any depth. The same is true of unregulated public works contracting and private real estate development, with corruption and illegal seizure of public properties rampantly destroying the coast, heritage sites and the few remaining public spaces in the city with near zero accountability in the press.

But with so much damage done during the first two decades of postwar Lebanon, could this negligence possibly continue in the years ahead? Or will the current atmosphere of political revolt and technological change make business as usual no longer tenable both for Lebanese elites and their sycophantic media organizations?

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Al Jadeed reporter Nawal Berry interviews activists on Sept. 9th, reporting live from the protests for hours

In a rather sudden departure from their previously tepid reporting, a handful of media outlets have begun to challenge Lebanese state power simply by devoting more time to those who protest it than to the armed elites who sustain it. Leading local broadcaster LBC for example has for years has been known for a flagship talk show where war-criminals-turned-politicians are given a platform to speak at length with few questions asked about their bloody track record. And despite the fact that such men should be tried before the courts, the host frequently visits their mansions and makes jokes with them with his trademark outlandish laughing bouts, thus humanizing authoritarian figures and reinforcing a system of vague respectability despite their failed leadership. Yet since the anti-corruption #youstink protests began this summer, LBC has virtually thrown its hat into the battle by sending reporters to cover the demonstrations live for hours on end. Not only were reporters interviewing protesters denouncing politicians, they were literally living the experience of police brutality by physically being subjected to tear gas and baton violence themselves, live on camera, and sharing the trauma with audiences nationwide, instantaneously.

LBC reporter Foutan Raad displayed particular boldness when police demanded she cease reporting at the environment ministry, where several activists had staged a 9 hour sit-in in September. But even after her cameraman’s broadcast was forcefully ended, Raad continued reporting live to the LBC studio over her cell phone. She refused to give in and riot police eventually physically picked her up by her arms and legs, removing her from the building. Raad’s dogged reporting continued nonetheless in the weeks that followed as she has been a near constant presence at demonstrations, keeping a watchful eye on police action and propaganda efforts. During the major demonstration in October, Raad debunked an ominously-sounding police tweet that accused activists of setting a fire near the Martyr’s Square statue, making it clear that the protestors were merely drying their clothes after police had fired water cannons at them all night.

In addition to Raad and LBC, Al Jadeed TV, which over recent years has become one of the rare local news organizations to conduct investigative and hidden camera work, has also provided near constant coverage giving voice to the protesters outspoken critiques of ministers and powerful institutions. Last month Al Jadeed aired an impromptu press conference where a recently freed female activist gave a long and detailed testimony of being beaten and threatened with rape while in police custody. In fact both Al Jadeed and LBC have repeatedly aired compilation promo pieces showcasing police brutality, even using an on-screen graphic with the hashtag #youstink. The mere fact that these networks are live from the protests, often with the lens trained on riot police, is significant in itself. One wonders what may have happened had the cameras not been rolling? Would the police have calmly stood aside in between violent crackdowns as protesters took over streets in front of important ministries and courts for hours at a time? Would they have released so many activists so quickly if the faces of the detained and protests demanding their release were not in the media every day?

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Satellite trucks line up during a demonstration outside the environment ministry Sept. 1 2015

Students of journalism are taught a quintessential parable about the trade early on: “News is what people don’t want you to know. The rest is advertising.” In Lebanon however, the uncharacteristically brave work of those reporters confronting power has been vilified by several establishment Lebanese media organizations who are virtually stumbling over themselves to support the state.

Despite her uncompromising reporting, the popular newsite “Lebanon Debate” dubbed Ms. Raad as “lacking any experience” in an unsourced three paragraph article. Meanwhile the news station, NBN, dismissed Al Jadeed TV as “spreading sectarianism” and headed by a “shady businessman” after it aired an interview with a protestor that criticized NBN’s backer, the speaker of Parliament. Meanwhile both OTV and Al Anbaa newspaper have called the protesters “an international conspiracy” in shoddily contrived reports that offer no evidence to back their fantastical claims. Finally, Al Joumhouria newspaper, which has also peddled sourceless conspiracy articles, printed a front page image of a protester giving the finger to the police with a large font headline that screams “Thugs occupy Beirut.” Yet the paper paid little attention to the actual armed party operatives that have attacked journalists and activists in plain sight of security forces. At the same time, the Hariri’s family’s Future Television or Hezbollah’s Al Manar have simply ignored protests or attacks on them and often aired soap operas as activists held press conferences covered live by sympathetic channels.

It may come as no surprise that nearly all of the news organizations attacking those journalists willing to confront power are either owned or closely tied to incumbent politicians. Will those few reporters and outlets be able continue their defiant subversion in the face of such delegitimization? Will the public see through the smear campaigns or have they also be conditioned by the ruling powers in Lebanon, and the conspiratorial fear mongering they employ to draw supporters closer?

What is clear in the short term is that many citizens are increasingly creating their own press: online comedians such as Pierre Hachach, who was arrested for 11 days, or the many Facebook and Youtube pages of activist movements now have hundreds of thousands of followers, exceeding the audience of many mainstream media programs. With their increasingly sophisticated videos, parodies and corruption reports, these citizens and grassroots groups are providing regular updates on the situation even before the mainstream media shows up. The question is thus increasingly shifting from concern over the Lebanese press doing a better job for the public to concerns over their ability to simply catch up.

 

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Abu Rakhousa + Oum Rakhousa = Rakhousa (source) One of several memes mocking a prominent businessman after his attacks on protestors for ‘cheapening’ Beirut .

 

I’m hearing a lot of people say street protests are dying out in Beirut, though there are more demonstrations planned this week. Whatever the case and with so much going on, it’s easy to forget that street action is not the only contribution activist movements make. They also produce new avenues for expressing opinion and new opportunities for asking questions and discussing problems in personalized ways that can become amplified with technology. For example, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is largely seen as defunct, but some argue that the language it employed such as “the 99 percent” helped introduce new questions, accessible vocabulary and increased consciousness about financial power that may have an impact for years to come. In Lebanon over recent months, we have seen a number of memes and events that also question power in innovative ways. I look at one of these instances in my column for last month’s issue of Bold Magazine.  

 

 

Abou Rakhousa and the politics of poverty

Bold Magazine, October 2015

By Habib Battah

 

Like many young men from his town, my father felt compelled to leave his family behind and board a ship bound for South America. He was 18 years old, didn’t speak a word of Spanish and had only three dollars in his pocket. It was all the money his father, an electrician, could afford to give his son, although he helped build the first national power grid to serve North Lebanon. The family of seven slept on the floor in a one-room apartment in Tripoli. They rarely ate meat and owned no refrigerator or oven so my grandmother would send her dough to the local baker, who took one out of every five baked loaves as a commission. Their story is not unique.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese fled their country in the 1950s and the decades that followed just to survive. The Western media fantasy of Lebanon as “The Paris of the Middle East” with high rollers in casinos and European models waterskiing on the Bay of Saint Georges was not shared by most living outside of the capital or even within it. Most Lebanese then and today live poorly with an unemployment rates of 24 percent and a minimum wage of less than $500. Meanwhile bank assets owned largely by elite businessmen and their political cronies are soaring past $200 billion or around four times Lebanon’s negligible GDP.

It was within this context that one of the country’s elite businessman criticized anti-corruption demonstrators for holding rallies in downtown. Nicolas Chammas, Channel distributor and head of the Beirut Traders’ Association, complained in a press conference that the rallies occupying public squares were hurting posh businesses in the central district. He said downtown, which hosted the country’s ‘finest and most respectable’ banks, hotels and shops should not be a place for “Abu Rakhousa,” a colloquial term implying cheap or discount stores. Chammas was reacting perhaps to the sandwich carts usually banned by police, but that have sprouted up at rallies to serve protesters. Chammas also took aim at what he described as the “Communist and Marxist” elements among the crowd whose ideas he said were “more dangerous” than violent rioters. “They are trying to start a class war and this is rejected” he exclaimed to a few claps from a small audience of businessmen. “We are the ones that have held the liberal Lebanese economy on our shoulders for 100 years and we won’t let anyone destroy that!”

 

But what about all hundreds of thousands of Lebanese that have fled their homes over the same century? Are they not victims of a type of class war where the rich get richer and the poor have to find work in other countries? Today, less than 0.3 percent of Lebanese control half the country’s wealth, according to an Executive magazine analysis of a 2013 Credit Suisse study, which noted that Lebanon was one of the world’s most unequal countries in terms of wealth distribution.

With many of the same families and businesses in power for generations, that wealth also doesn’t seem to change hands very much. A study produced last month by AUB professor Jad Chaaban showed that individuals tied to politicians control 43 percent of bank assets and 18 out of 20 banks have major shareholders linked to political elites. Is this the type of free and “liberal economy” Mr. Chammas was talking about? One in which there are few jobs and very little upward mobility? An economy where citizens pay exorbitant amounts for basic public services that barely function with virtually no efforts to improve them? According to Professor Chaaban, 36 percent of the government’s earnings are sucked back into paying the national debt, which in turn goes back into the pocket of bankers and politicians who have loaned the money.

Much of the debt was incurred during post war spending sprees on “reconstruction” projects compounded by related revenue losses such as the selling of the entire downtown Beirut for a bargain to a private company known as Solidere. Founded by the late billionaire prime minister Rafik Hariri and a group of high wealth associates, Solidere was given generous tax breaks and incentives to transform the once gritty city center into a shiny luxury district inhabitable only by those few that could afford its newly-laid cobblestone streets and multi-million dollar apartments. At the same time, many citizens across the rest of the city and country lacked water, electricity and garbage collection–the same problems that plague Lebanon 20 years later.

Of course questions about spending priorities and who profits from them often go unanswered because the country’s business and political elite are largely not answerable or accountable to anyone. But that could be changing.

Hours after Mr. Chammas’s accusations, #abourakhousa began trending on Twitter and memes and cartoons mocking the powerful businessman’s claims went viral on Facebook. Days later, activists had organized an entire #abourakhousa flea market in the heart of downtown Beirut, in defiance of its elite zoning laws and Mr. Chammas’s warnings. There were pop-up dollar shops, juice stands, even a barber stand offering haircuts for 60 cents. One table sold a pile of discount books about Marxism and Communism, just to spite the elite businessmen’s worst fears of “dangerous ideas.”

By evening, hundreds had entered the square and the TV crews were ubiquitous. There was free music, singing, dancing and reminiscing about old Beirut, which had been a melting pot of all income levels. Some old shopkeepers told cameras that their modest shops had been stolen by the state, a claim heard often from the thousands that were given small payouts for their properties to make way for luxury buildings. Many were overjoyed at the atmosphere and cheap eats, noting that today a falafel sandwich or any traditional affordable food can barely be found among the gilded streets. Activists claimed a victory in reclaiming the city center, even if only for a day, from the most powerful real estate interests in the country, who largely stood back and watched.

 

 

Sparked by a garbage crisis, the protests that have been gaining steam over the last few weeks have expanded to challenge the dynastic economic system that has underpinned political power in Lebanon for decades. Whether it is in the form of #abourakhousa market or sit-ins at government offices, there is a new air of defiance in how citizens are reacting to authority.

Millions of Lebanese living in the diaspora will be watching closely. Many are excited by a glimmer of accountability that may help prevent future generations from facing the same self-exile that they did. Not only did that exodus tear apart families, but it also drained the country of its human resources, innovative minds and potential leaders, alleviating any challenge to a system which allows a few to live comfortably at the expense of the majority.

 

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Here are a few of the many AbuRakhousa memes and videos that circulated across social media:

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Lebanese broadcaster LBC has just released a fascinating report detailing the curious and multi-million dollar real estate holdings of Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil.

According to documents leaked to LBC by a source claiming to be the Lebanon branch of international hacking collective, Anonymous, Bassil owns some 38 properties in areas in and around his hometown of Batroun as well as other mountain suburbs in Keserwan and Metn districts. For those who don’t already know, Bassil, 45, is also the son-in-law of one of Lebanon’s most powerful politicians and key civil war participant, retired army general Michel Aoun.

LBC ‘s “Heki Jalis” (Straight Talk) program took the documents provided by Anonymous Lebanon a step further, investigating the value of the properties with a real estate expert, revealing that the properties are worth over $22 million.

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The breakdown according to the documents is as follows:

-In September 2005, just months after his political life began when his father-in-law returned from exile, property purchased by Bassil in 2004 (then 34 years old) was subdivided into 15 plots in one day and worth around $1.1 million

-In 2009, 8 properties were purchased in two batches, valued today at $227,700 and $14.5 million respectively.

-In 2010, 2 properties with seafront access were purchased, valued around $4.7 million

-In 2014, 1 property is sold for around $1.1 million

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Thus the grand total is around $22 million:

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Finally, LBC points out that Bassil’s official government salary for being minister over the last eight years accounts for $1.25 million.

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According to LBC, on his personal webpage, Bassil describes himself as being born into a “middle class family”, graduated from college in 1993 and began “working on small projects” before he met General Aoun’s daughter.

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The LBC voiceover asks: “How did he acquire so much property? Does he have other sources of revenue?

“We are not accusing, we are just asking.”

LBC also points out that Bassil has vowed to fight corruption while minister, but his promises to improve telecom and restore electricity to 24 hours per day by 2015 have largely failed. LBC reminds us that the electricity cut even during his power point presentation when he made the promise back in 2013:

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The episode ends as host Joe Maalouf notes that the property values are estimations and may not be 100 percent accurate, particularly due to the common practice of undervaluing land purchases to escape taxes. (In fact, an official at the government’s real estate office once told me most properties are recorded at half of their actual values). Also the figures were reported during the first quarter of this year, so any acquisitions after that period are not included in the report.

Maalouf promises to continue investigating the property assets of other politicians and he repeatedly states that this program is not an attack on Bassil or his political coalition. I think this would be a great journalistic initiative as there are politicians who have equally or much larger real estate assets than Bassil, including those of his political opponents.

Earlier this year I wrote a major piece for The Guardian on how the Hariri family and its cronies– considered the political nemesis of the Aounists– have acquired beach front properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars through dubious manipulations of laws while disregarding the public’s right to access coastal areas.

In the piece, I also linked to the impressive efforts of the activist group Mashaa which has revealed through Google Maps satellite images that senior politicians from all political parties have been illegally claiming the coast and establishing multi-million dollar resorts. I have also written extensively, most recently in an in-depth piece for Al Jazeera English about the major corporate deals that usurped most of downtown Beirut’s property from its original owners via Lebanon’s biggest company, Solidere, which is also closely tied to the Hariri dynasty and its many political associates and now worth over $9 billion.

You can watch the full episode of “Heki Jalis” about Bassil below. Maalouf ends by saying he looks forward to hearing Bassil’s response.

After years of propagandistic reporting, it’s encouraging to see some Lebanese news organizations begin confronting and investigating those who rule the country, often with the help of activists providing research and key documents. Let’s hope there are more investigations to come in real estate as well as other sectors.

Thanks to Firas for sharing part of the report video on Facebook. 

UPDATE: Minister Bassil has held a press conference to respond to the LBC report, claiming the properties were simply inheritance from his father and grandfather as well as the fruits of his “sweat” and “hard work.” (This doesn’t really explain why the purchases were made in his name all in the past 10 years.)

Bassil also accuses LBC of potentially orchestrating an international conspiracy to defame his political party, due probably to what he described as their anti-corruption efforts and geopolitical defiance. He has also threatened to sue  any further attempts at “character assassination.” You can watch part of his press conference here.

UPDATE 2 9/11/15:

Heki Jalis show host Joe Maalouf says following last week’s broadcast he has received a phone call from a member of parliament within Bassil’s bloc, Elias Abou Saab, who owns a radio station Maalouf directs. The MP allegedly threatened to remove Maalouf from his position after helping set up the station due to his report about Bassil. Maalouf responds by saying he is unfazed and “will not give up a country for a radio station.”

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The passing away of Zahle MP Elias Skaff last week after a “long (unspecified) illness” has opened an unexpected window into the workings of the Lebanese state structure and its deepest fears. In this video broadcast on live TV last week, dozens of armed men loyal to Skaff are seen brazenly opening fire during his funeral procession with little concern for public safety.

 

But rather than condemn this act of potentially deadly and unbridled violence, which defies the very notion of a state–in that it holds a monopoly on guns– the country’s top police official, Minister of Interior Nouhad Machnouk, is actually seen attending the MP’s funeral as barrages of indiscriminate gunfire are unleashed outside:

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Source: Youstink Facebook page
A senior police officer is even seen marching near the armed vigilantes, who have sophisticated gear fit for a war zone:

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Source: Youstink Facebook page

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Screen shot: Al Jadeed TV
 

Does this mean the state has lost control?

That doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to the police reaction to the unarmed #youstink movement. Compare the silence, if not complicity, with Zahle gunmen to the swift and violent police action that occurs when unarmed protestors push only a few meters toward police lines:

 

Or how protestors holding only Lebanese flags were violently housed and dispersed by riot police:

 

Police are also accused of violating basic human rights protocols in firing tear gas canister directly at protestors, rather than in the air:

 

In fact, the police were so overzealous in their attacks on #youstink protestors in recent weeks that they even shot tear canisters at themselves, drawing laughter from the crowd, but also illustrating their unprepared and perhaps desperate scramble to regain control:

 

On their social media accounts, Minister Machnouk’s Internal Security Forces argue that their tactics were justified because some had thrown rocks toward their barricades breaking a few panes of glass of nearby luxury hotels as well as lightly injuring some officers, a move many in the non-violent movement disavowed. However, this reaction also comes on the back of dozens of protestors being wounded or beaten by police over recent weeks, as well as dozens detained arbitrarily with no access to lawyers for weeks at a time.

Many protestors will also remember when police stood idly by last month as party loyalists savagely attacked activists. I witnessed two of the men briefly arrested (activists say they were quickly released) but police did not seek mass arrests as the gang of violent men walked brazenly in front of riot officers.

 

Ironically the same riot police had hunted down, beat and interrogated some 40 unarmed activists earlier that day as seen in the previous videos in this post. The majority were released without charge yet some now face military tribunals from offenses ranging from insulting officers to pushing over barricades.

Similarly, how many of the gunmen in Zahle were arrested or face military trials for barbarically making the sky rain bullets from their machine guns? If the minister of interior is interested in upholding the state, shouldn’t he launch an investigation into these potentially dangerous armed men in full military gear on his streets or the ones who attacked protestors with impunity in Beirut and then marched nonchalantly past his cops? Will these men be allowed to use their guns and fists however they please, intimidating neighbors and anyone who has a problem with them or what they are doing? If the police do not care, does that mean such men or anyone carrying a gun can also commit crimes and simply get away with it?

Of course these questions go to the root of what we consider Lebanon’s ‘political system’ in which armed parties run the country as they please with no fear of accountability because police would not dare interfere in their business. It is this environment of impunity and intimidation that has allowed militias and their leaders to hand out contracts to unqualified or unregulated private companies that they or their friends own with little concern for efficiency or transparency, in other words “running the country like a corner store” as the Arabic saying goes. And it is exactly these issues that the #youstink movement has galvanized around:

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Graffiti in downtown Beirut following recent protests
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But instead of empathizing with activists demands for a less violent state where militias rule, the interior minister has actually threatened anyone who harms the image of those who have run the country during the post war period, namely the late prime minister Rafik Hariri. In what seems to be a response to allegations that demonstrations are hurting business in the downtown area (where protestors called for accountability in the massive real estate project Hariri established there) Minister Machnouk threatens to use the law to “cut the hands” of anyone of harms Hariri’s legacy:

 

So if armed violence does not bother the interior minister, than why is he so worried about unarmed protestors? What is it that he and “the state” he represents are afraid of exactly?

Do the ruling powers actually fear their jobs could be threatened?

In fact, here are the same “dangerous” protestors this week actually cleaning up garbage on the streets, basically doing the state’s work:

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And despite tear gas and mass arrests, protestors continue to be released by the courts. Yesterday, the last two to be held, online comedian Pierre Hachach and activist Waref Sleiman, were released after 11 days in detention. They emerged as defiant as ever:

 

One online activist and commentator actually thanked “the state” for adding several hundred new likes to both Pierre and Waref’s Facebook pages, leading people to learn more about their work and that of others involved in the anti-corruption movement:

 

Emilie is just one of many activists and average citizens now making their voices heard on social media, using humor or political commentary, unfazed by all the threats of the state, which seem increasingly ineffective. She ends her video by noting that in addition to the government and its corrupt daily operations, the additional challenge the movement faces is that of those still siting at home or sitting on the fence, accepting that corruption as if it were normal.

Emilie closes by cleverly using all the movements major hashtags in a sentence, addressing those who still stand with the state: “To you we say “you stink” “we will continue” “we want accountability” “for the sake of the Republic”, “All of them means all of them.”

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“Listen you f**ks,” the man wearing military style pants and boots yelled at dozens of young male and female activists gathered in front of the environment ministry for anti-corruption protests last Wednesday (Sept. 16). He was advancing fast toward the crowd of #youstink activists, as a few police standing around looked on. “Anyone of you curses (Parliament speaker) Berri again and we will come down on you!”

“You are filming!? Stop filming you punk,” another of the men roared toward the end of the clip below, his eyes overcome with rage as he thrust his finger toward a cameraman.

Watch the video here:

Moments later chairs and tables began flying toward the crowd, as the men ruthlessly punched and kicked everyone in sight. Women are screaming, one falls to the ground. Others begin running and ducking. “They called us animals and whores,” one young woman complains, as she runs for cover.

Then projectiles began raining down. At first they were small rocks and bottles but then large pieces of concrete came twirling through the sky, launched indiscriminately at the crowd of peaceful protestors, many of them already on hunger strike.

See the video here:

Here are some stills from the video. At first people didn’t even realize what was happening:

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Then the concrete blocks started landing. One collided with the asphalt just a few feet away from where I was shooting:

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And just a few inches from a man’s leg and head:

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After several incoming volleys, one of the young boy protestors throws a couple of bottles and smaller rocks back. Amid the chaos, other protestors confront him, accusing him of being “one of them”.  But even as the young men argue, the blocks come raining down:

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And everyone runs for cover:

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The irony here is that during this wanton violence, dozens of heavily armored riot police were just standing only a few feet away at the entrance of the environment ministry, armed with shields and sticks . At about 1:30, I pan briefly in their direction. And other videos have emerged of the people literally begging the riot police to intervene. Yet only a handful of regular officers are begrudgingly sent over.

Even when a few police do arrive, they seem to do nothing to stop one of the violent men who continues to throw pieces of concrete at the men and women protestors:

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The officers are literally standing next to the man in black as he winds up to throw more rocks:

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So who were these men, ready to destroy dozens of people they did not even know? There was about 10 or 15 of them. They were largely middle-aged, clean shaven, button shirts and shiny sneakers. These were not the so-called “infiltrators” the young unruly protestors who broke glass and lit fires downtown, those claimed to be conspirators by many in the ruling class, eager to cast doubt on the movement. Many of those kids were understandably frustrated after police beatings and shootings of previous days and directed their anger toward the security forces, not the fellow protestors. They came from the slums, wearing ratty or cheap clothes and barely in their teens–none that I saw seemed to be over 20. On the other hand, those who attacked the protestors well groomed and dressed and appeared to be in their 30s and 40s if not older.

Amal movement, the party headed by Parliament Speaker Berri, has denied any involvement in the day’s events. Interestingly the television channel that supports the movement–NBN TV–did not cover any of the violence directly in its newscast, merely summarizing that clashes were sparked by the cursing and defamation of Mr. Berri. This is because minutes before the men came to attack the protestors, one of the activists had told a reporter with NBN that its patron would be the next target of the call for resignations. (The activists have already called for the resignations of the interior and environmental ministers for police brutality and failure to prevent the garbage crisis.)

Thus in NBN’s subsequent newscast, this clip is played repeatedly, followed by cherry-picked moments of confrontation between activists and police. No actual cursing of Speaker Berri is played–only a call for his resignation.

As the images run on screen,  the scripts read by reporters and anchors demonize the protestors as uncouth, uncivilized and immoral trouble-makers. The visibly angry NBN anchor then takes aim at Al Jadeed TV, (one of the few channels that has taken the side of the activists) and basically calls it a propaganda machine churning out hatred and sectarianism headed by a shady businessman. It’s no wonder considering some activists interviewed by the channel have been freely attacking senior Lebanese politicians, including Speaker Berri, over the state of corruption and chaos in the country.

But there is no footage of the fist fights and rock throwing of these men. “The police intervened and restored the situation to normal,” the NBN anchor reads nonchalantly from the teleprompter, no mention of the launching of projectiles that could have easily sent many to the hospital or worse.

Yet in reality,  as noted earlier, the riot police waited several minutes before intervening. Even though there were dozens of riot police in full gear standing only a few meters away, they barely budge as civilians are being beaten and targeted by concrete blocks being thrown by the mysterious men.

It was only after much of the damage has been done, the tents used by hunger-strikers destroyed, people beaten and rocks thrown savagely at the crowd that the riot police finally deploy, as seen in this video:

The police even made a couple of arrests. Here is one of them:

Many began to ask: why did they police wait around so long? Earlier in the day, police did not hesitate to rough up protestors and arrest some 40, many activist organizers with no justification. Most were released a few hours later. One, activist Aly Sleem, told me police had shoved him in a van, pushed his face into the floor and began threatening him with military prison or being sent to Syria. They drove him around in circles for two hours, claiming he had received foreign funding and had attacked police, both of which had no basis.

Here is my interview with Aly, shortly after he was released later on the same evening:

Were the men who attacked the activists also abducted, driven around and threatened by police or did they get off easier?

The story doesn’t end there. Four days later on Sept. 20, a group of some of the same men once again violently assaulted the protestors.

It all began when one of the activists held a banner denouncing corruption with the faces of some of the most powerful politicians. These included Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri. Beside this, the activist– middle-aged man wearing a bright vest–also held a picture of Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah and the late Imam Mousa Sadr, dubbing the two as “symbols of respectability.”

Within minutes of raising the banner, two men run up to the activist. One says “Don’t you ever raise Nasrallah’s photo!” Ironically the activist was praising Nasrallah in comparison to other politicians. And yet he was hauled away as other partisan men began to fight those protestors who tried to intervene.

I ended this clip when one of the violent men wearing a black shirt and black hat is seen roaring wildly at those around him, sending many running. He then spots myself and a few other cameraman and begins lunging toward us. I put my phone down and then watched him walk passed me and punch, throw against a wall and then kick and beat two cameramen to the ground.

Suffice to say, there was very little filming after that, but thanks to the drone footage by Al Jadeed, we can see the rest of the fight continued in the clip below. Eventually the activist is dragged by his neck, his clothes ripped off and then beaten repeatedly by hand; then beaten repeatedly over the head with the megaphone he was holding.

After the activist is beaten, he is seen walking away from what appears to be a cordon of men who were keeping police out. The drone camera then follows the now bear-chested activist as he walks toward a few police officers to explain what happened. One officer waives him off as if telling him to get lost. (Literally adding insult to injury, the protestor is now being sued by Speaker Berri for defamation over his banner)

Later in the video above, we can see the violent men fall into a march formation, their numbers grow to about 30 as some join from the crowd. I notice several familiar faces from the previous attack at the environment ministry, including the man who kept throwing rocks at protestors despite the police presence. I watched as the men would stand around separately as if they didn’t know each other, circulate and then eventually join up together.  Once again, the riot police stand idly as the men pass defiantly in front of them.

They then began marching aggressively through the crowd, roughing up protestors and chanting loudly: “Berri comes after God” and “the revolution can have my dick.”

Thus the vulgar language, the rage in their eyes, and the willingness to commit fatal acts of violence seemed to be very similar tactics.  The men appeared to be part of a group, trained in how to operate discreetly in a crowd: fall into formation in a moment’s notice and then disperse back again and melt into anonymity.  There appear to be clear roles and objectives as only a few of the men engage in acts of violence while others weave through the crowd or stand close to the action without getting directly involved, seemingly to provide back up. There is often what appears to be a ring leader in his 40s/50s keeping the men in line, seen at the end of the Al Jadeed drone clip. Are we to believe these men gathered spontaneously? That they are a random sample of friends or neighbors?

And what about NBN TV and Amal’s version of events where no violence happens and the party has nothing do with the men attacking protestors?

Local broadcaster Al Jadeed did some investigating. It turns out two of the most violent characters on both days are indeed very close if not members of the party, according to this report:

Yet why are only two men investigated? What about the many others who were throwing punches or rocks at the crowd?

And what about the role of the police? Were they genuinely intimidated by these mystery men? How could the police take on thousands of peaceful protestors, arresting, tear-gassing and assualting dozens over recent weeks, and yet barely lift a finger to stop less than 10 or 20 men? Many were left wondering: which side are the police on?

Once again, who are these men? If Amal denies they are members, why are they so angry that someone cursed their leader or even simply called for his resignation? Could the men simply be average citizens who admire Speaker Berri? Then again, how many average men just sitting at home would feel they need to walk to a protest and physically harm as many people possible, with no ulterior incentive?

All this raises important questions about the future of the #youstink protest movement in Lebanon, which has undertaken several unprecedented acts of civil disobedience over recent weeks. But can leaders of political parties be questioned without retribution in violence? How many groups of men sitting at home today are willing to harm or even kill anyone who insults or even questions their leader?  How will the protest movement deal with these individuals? What motivates their rage? Are they victims of the civil war themselves, suffering perhaps from PTSD? How can one reconcile with the reality that so many in Lebanon are still dealing with the war and or employed by its post-war political apparatus? What strategies of resistance to the state can activists take in Lebanon without inviting violence from party loyalists?

Finally, will such violence and indiscriminate arrests by police dampen the protest movement? Or will more people be even more motivated to stand up for their right to speak out?

After the police arrests and beatings by party loyalists on September 20th, later that evening thousands of non-violent activists still showed up. They defiantly filled the streets leading to parliament. They did not resort to violence, they simply sat on the floor and raised their hands until riot police finally relented.

 

“From this point on, every square is owned by the people,” shouted activist Assaad Thebian over a megaphone, surrounded by a sea of protestors.

“Today is a historic day, ” he added. “Today we have a future and we have hope. Today we announce a new political party, the party of the Lebanese people!”

The crowd roared. Then later sang patriotic songs and danced together. The feeling was electric that night. Now more than a week later, many will be watching what the movement does next and how it will cope with those violent individuals who do not want to see it succeed.

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Activists take down a legally dubious fence restricting access to the sea at Dalieh El Raouche

As I have written previously, a new boldness appears to be gaining strength among Lebanese activists in the context of the garbage crisis and #youstink movement. In addition to facing off politicians in the typical form of large-scale protests and marches, we have also seen unprecedented acts of civil disobedience such as challenging  security barriers at the Prime Minister’s office and the holding of a sit-in at the environment ministry for nine hours, as thousands gathered outside in support. We have also seen the protests extending beyond garbage to other failed public services such as electricity and water shortages. Yesterday we saw that energy channeled into a new front: the unregulated privatization of the Lebanese coast.

Like dysfunctional public services, the unlawful seizure of public seafront properties has gone on for decades with no accountability,  as politicians and their cronies create luxury marinas and resorts restricting access to well-heeled customers and leaving very few public swimming areas for the majority of people in the country who cannot afford entrance fees. (Over 1,000 illegal resorts occupy the coast)

Yesterday a protest was called to occupy one of these upscale marinas built on public property known as Zaitunay Bay. (The Bay is owned partially by a prominent former minister and the marina pays a pittance to the state- only $1.5 per square meter–despite collecting exorbitant berthing rates for the dozens of yachts parked there.)

Protestors began by defying the marina’s exclusionary restrictions on food, drink and music by having picnics and a dance party:

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After a couple of hours, the activists from #youstink and other groups decided to move the party to the famous Raouche Rocks area further along the seaside promenade (corniche) where another luxury project is being planned and the coast has been fenced off to the public. Here prominent investors tied to the former prime minister’s family have put up a razor wire fence in preparation for a major real estate development, seen by activists and lawyers has a clear violation of the law. (See my in-depth piece in the Guardian for more background on this story.)

For over a year, activists known as The Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh have been trying to stop the project and open the space to the public by lobbying politicians, organizing an international design competition for alternatives and even convincing the environment minister to issue a decree to protect the area. Ironically the environment minister himself–the same one being held responsible for the garbage crisis–had called the razor wire “hideous” in a Facebook post on his personal page. Police subsequently destroyed the homes of fishermen to make way for the private project, claiming the homes were built illegally. Yet many questioned why the fence and many unlawful luxury establishments blocking the coast were not included in the police “law enforcement” action.

Lawyers associated with the campaign have also argued that the fence contradicts constitutionally enshrined rights of access to the sea and endangers the public with its layers of prison-like barbed wires both above and below the esplanade, as pedestrians often recline or lean on the rails. Following intense lobbying from the Dalieh campaign, the minister had even issued letters to relevant authorities calling for the removal of the razor wires in August 2014. And yet despite all this, the 377 meter fence has been up for a year. Until yesterday.

Activists from the #youstink protests came equipped with pliers–young, old, male, female, middle class, poor–and literally began bringing it down with their hands:

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Here is a video I shot from the scene:

Finally the view of the sea was unobstructed again, revealing the famous pigeon rocks, on countless postcards of Lebanon, but increasingly hard to see for city residents due to rampant and illegal developments.

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Once the fence came down, there was a few minutes of celebration as protestors chanted about corruption, the daily theft by the ruling political class, the unelected parliament, the lack of employment and marginalization of the poor. Finally one says “Now that we have liberated the coast, let’s go enjoy it!”

 

I then filmed the crowd walking toward the sea as police man just stand by and watch. In fact a few dozen police, including a riot squad, were deployed at the scene. But they merely watched as citizens took down the fence.

Finally it was time to reap the benefits and enjoy the sea.

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Activists made their way down to rocky coast that had been used for hundreds if not thousands of years as a swimming hole by the city’s residents.

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Here is a video from the scene:

Before the fence had gone up, this spot known as Dalieh el Raouche had been used by generations of Beirut residents, known for its natural pools, coves, caves and grassy areas to picnic and enjoy time with the family.  It is feared that the private project, proposed to a celebrity architect, will end all this free access and limit the area to elite sunbathers who can afford entrance or membership fess.

When the protestors began to head home as the sun began to sink into the sea, they had stripped the 377 meter fence in its entirety:

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Left behind a sign, reclaiming the public access to the area, reading “This Sea is Ours”

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And allowing average citizens once again, the right to gaze out at the sea, one of the few rights that seem to be left in this country.

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In contrast to the street violence earlier this week and harsh crackdown on young protestors, it was all kisses and praises for police– at least for a few brief moments during last night’s rally at Riad Solh square.

“I hope everyone will film this,” one activist shouts out. “Because people think we are against each other. They don’t see we are all in this together!” Another praises God and pulls the supervising officer’s head in for a kiss.

Riot police had previously opened fire on the crowd with rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas and live rounds in air. At least one young activist has been critically wounded and dozens others arrested amid street violence, shattered storefronts and vandalism of state property.

But the scene last night was far tamer with the water cannons silent and officers observing quietly on the sidelines as a group of rowdy boys encircled and began cheering them. Earlier in the day some of the same boys proudly admitted to me that they had been at the heart of the civil disobedience in previous days, having been chased and shot at by security forces. With little facial hair, most were barely adolescent and said they lived in the nearby slums of Khandak Ghamiq and the southern suburbs, having faced severe shortages of water and electricity, income and medical care ( i.e not just the problems of garbage collection that have brought out middle class activists.)

Toward the end of the video, one boy shouts out: “See we’ve made a truce!”

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More videos to come… (as the infamously slow Lebanese internet allows.)

UPDATE: Here’s a second video, moments later, as protestors chant “God bless you, oh policeman”

At the very end one protestor shouts out: “Don’t shoot us, oh policeman”